About the Book
September 1938. Hitler is determined to start a war. Chamberlain is desperate to preserve the peace. The issue is to be decided in a city that will forever afterwards be notorious for what takes place there. Munich.
As Chamberlain’s plane judders over the Channel and the Fürher’s train steams relentlessly south from Berlin, two young men travel with secrets of their own. Hugh Legat is one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries; Paul Hartmann a German diplomat and member of the anti-Hitler resistance. Great friends at Oxford before Hitler came to power, they haven’t seen one another since they were last in Munich six years earlier. Now, as the future of Europe hangs in the balance, their paths are destined to cross again .
When the stakes are this high, who are you willing to betray? Your friends, your family, your country or your conscience?
Format: Hardcover (352 pages) Publisher: Hutchinson
Publication date: 21st September 2017 Genre: Historical fiction
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Despite becoming a fan of Robert Harris’s writing since reading An Officer and A Spy, his 2017 novel Munich has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite a while. Including it in my 20 Books of Summer list was a deliberate ploy to make me finally read it, as well as acquiring the audio book version (narrated brilliantly by David Rintoul) so I could listen or read as the mood took me. How glad I am I did as I thought it was terrific.
Despite the fact we know from our history books the agreement reached at the Munich conference did not ultimately prevent the outbreak of war, the author still manages to create an atmosphere of tension and expectation. The book gives a fascinating, behind the scenes insight into the backroom going-ons on the British side: the careful drafting and re-drafting of papers and statements, the discussions with advisers, the telegrams to and fro from London. I particularly liked the scenes on the plane as Chamberlain and his team of diplomats fly to the conference. Surely only the British could have an in-flight meal sourced from a Fortnum & Mason hamper!
On the German side, I was transfixed by the scenes on Hitler’s train as the Fuhrer and his entourage travel to Munich. It’s here that both German diplomat Paul Hartmann and the reader have their first face to face encounter with Hitler. For Hartmann, it is a pivotal moment. He also picks up a rather unwelcome fellow passenger who will dog his footsteps in the days to come.
Feted at the time (even in Germany, which annoyed Hitler intensely), Chamberlain was later accused of appeasing Hitler and the Munich agreement was regarded as a failure because it did not prevent the outbreak of war. In the author’s hands, the reader gets a more sympathetic and nuanced appraisal of Chamberlain. There is a touching scene in the garden of 10 Downing Street in which the reader gets a true sense of what lies behind Chamberlain’s steely determination to avoid war. And far from being a failure, the author subtly prompts the reader to consider that, in at least delaying the outbreak of war, the Munich agreement provided valuable time for Britain to rearm.
One of the questions at the back of my mind whilst reading/listening to the book was how much of the story was based on fact and how much the author’s imagination. That question was answered when I listened to this interview with Robert Harris recorded in 2017. In short, pretty much all of the events are based on documented fact. The only two fictional characters are Hugh Legat and Paul Hartmann, although even the latter is inspired by a real life figure. Legat and Hartmann allow the author to introduce an element of espionage to the plot, adding further tension as both are risking their careers, possibly their lives.
An autocratic leader with narcissistic tendencies who removes anyone who disagrees with him, surrounds himself only with people willing to do his bidding, acts on whim, has little time for detail and delivers rabble-rousing speeches in which he incites hatred of others. Just as well we no longer have individuals like that in positions of power in the world, isn’t it?
Munich is my favourite kind of historical fiction: based on fact but enhanced by the author’s imagination. I learned a lot from the book and was thoroughly entertained at the same time.
In three words: Fascinating, detailed, suspenseful
Try something similar: Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements
About the Author
Robert Harris is the author of thirteen bestselling novels: the Cicero Trilogy – Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator – Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel, Pompeii, The Ghost, The Fear Index, An Officer and a Spy, which won four prizes including the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, Conclave, Munich and The Second Sleep. Several of his books have been filmed, including The Ghost, which was directed by Roman Polanski. His work has been translated into forty languages and he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He lives in West Berkshire with his wife, Gill Hornby. His next book, V2, is coming out in Autumn 2020.